Cigarettes and the Seduction of Women

Is she smoking that or making love to it? An image of glamour and sophistication went hand in hand with cigarette smoking in the first half of the 20th Century..
Is she smoking that or making love to it? An image of glamour and sophistication went hand in hand with cigarette smoking in the first half of the 20th Century..
Ads like these are now toast
Ads like these are now toast

Not Nice

Although smoking is now socially akin to having two heads and a contagious disease, when it was at its fashionable peak in the 20th Century, many people were persuaded to believe it was the smart, sophisticated thing to do. Film stars did it and so did politicians, singers, sports stars, the intelligentsia, dentists and even doctors.

However, in the very early part of the last century, half the population didn't smoke. This bothered the US cigarette manufacturers..after all, they were losing out on fifty percent of the market. The general thinking out there among the seething masses was that a smoking woman was very unladylike and well, just not nice and as a result most women eschewed the practice. The tobacco heads knew they had to break this powerful social taboo so they passed the problem on to the marketing men, who formed a brainstorming huddle. What to do..? Somehow they had to change the social mindset and get those feminine lips sucking on a Lucky Strike.

Now around this time a certain faction of women were getting a bit toey about not having the vote and various other discriminatory irritations. The women were making loud noises about 'freedom' and 'rights' and 'we want what men have'. This was an interesting turn of events and by the time the 1920s rolled around, one of the sharper ad men saw a promising chink in the conservative social armour of the demographic the tobacco industry was trying to crack open.

Women on the march in the early 20th Century
Women on the march in the early 20th Century
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Thankyou Mr. Freud!

Since the turn of the century, the great mover and shaker Sigmund Freud had been revolutionalising thinking. A new way of looking at the human mind had emerged and there was a shift away from ideas of soul toward a mechanistic approach. Freud came up with some compelling theories about the irrational, unconscious motives that drive human behaviour.

Enter Freud's nephew (by marriage), Edward Bernays - Bernays invented the term public relations and athough not widely known, was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Setting himself up as a PR expert in an office in New York, he was the first to take Freud's ideas and use them to manipulate the masses. Bernays showed corporations that they could persuade people to want things they didn't need by linking mass produced goods to unconscious desires. One of his most famous campaigns was the marketing of cigarettes to women.

To a certain extent WWI had wrought enough social change to see some women take up smoking; mainly college co-eds and women who had been overseas or taken up factory jobs previously held by men -but it wasn't enough. Although the numbers of female smokers had doubled between 1923 and 1928, it was still only at 12 %. Bernays began working for the American Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Lucky Strikes, in 1928 and the president of the company, George Hill, wanted Bernays to squash the social taboo around women smoking. Fascinated by his Uncle Sigmund's theory of psychoanalysis, Bernays contacted A.A. Brill, one of the first psychoanalysists in the US, who informed Bernays(for a very large fee) that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis.

Slick and smooth...Edward Bernays, the man credited with seducing women into smoking
Slick and smooth...Edward Bernays, the man credited with seducing women into smoking

Suck on That

If you can use propaganda for war, you can certainly use it for peace. Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans use of it, so what I did was to try to find some other word. We found the term 'Council for Public Relations'.


Psychoanalysis changed the 'pubic relations' industry forever...politically and commercially. The idea was that through the satisfaction of inner selfish desires, the masses could be made happy and compliant. "It was the start of the all-consuming self that has come to dominate today"~ Steven Pinker

Back in the 1920s, Bernays reasoned that If cigarettes were a symbol of male phallic empowerment/sexual power, then they could also be a way for women to challenge that power. A smoking woman was laying down the gauntlet to conservative, sexist social mores and in effect, taking the penis into her own hands. Or as Brill had said "They would have their own penises".

It was a shift in selling by way of the intellect, to persuasion via unconscious desire. This was about what you buy making you *feel good*, rather than about what you may need and it's an idea that still drives the wheels of consumerism today, perhaps even more persuasively than ever.

You might get cancer but...uh,  you'll stay slim.
You might get cancer but...uh, you'll stay slim.

Torches of Freedom

The Easter Sunday Parade of 1929 was a popular New York event attended by thousands and in an act of contrived deception, Bernays convinced a group of rich debutantes to join the parade and at a given signal by him, take out cigarettes which they had hidden under their clothes and light them up with a dramatic, eye-catching flourish.

Bernays had informed the press that a group of suffragettes were going to protest by lighting up what he called "torches of freedom"..(a term coined by Brill). The event became big news not just in the American press, but internationally. One woman, a Miss Hunt dispatched the following remarks to her local newspaper:

β€œI hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations.”

Thus an association was formed between the fight for female equality and smoking. Trend setters and forward thinkers began lighting up, as to smoke now meant to be socially progressive - a symbol of liberation and before too long, the general public followed suit. That single symbolic act at the Easter Parade had signified a breaking down of the social barriers for women smokers and sales began to rise and rise.

Bernays found other ways too, of persuading women to smoke and one of these was through body image and the new fashion for slimness. He plied fashion editors with a steady stream of photos featuring slender Parisian models in haute couture dresses and convinced women that smoking could satisfy their hunger without hurting their figures. Even on the the homefront, he emphasised the importance of cigarettes, pointing out that the good housewife should never let stocks run low.

In 1928 the president of American tobacco, George Hill, had said of breaking the female market; β€œIt will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.” and he was right. So was Bernays.

Cool, stylish...and a smoker. The modern woman.
Cool, stylish...and a smoker. The modern woman.


Molly Bales, The Harvard Brain

Steve Pinker, The Staff of Thought (documentary)

Larry Tye, Father of Spin

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Comments 31 comments

danthehandyman profile image

danthehandyman 5 years ago from Maryland

Great article, well researched. Love the old Lucky Strike ads. Marketing hasn't changed much in 90 years, has it?

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

It's true dan...things haven't changed much! Thanks.

DavitosanX profile image

DavitosanX 5 years ago

Great hub, Jane, really interesting! Too bad I just quit smoking. Reading this has unleashed major cravings!

(start rant)Gotta... fight.. the URGE!!!!(end rant)

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

haha Davito...don't let your brain be manipulated! And thanks.

A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

Fascinating history regarding cigarrettes and women. Sexs can sell anything! Thanks again for sharing.

marcoujor profile image

marcoujor 5 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

The seductiveness of these gorgeous advertisements about something so deadly is so ironic/ yet so compelling. I really enjoyed the history in this HUB~~ voted UP & AWESOME~~ thank you!

jeffduff profile image

jeffduff 5 years ago from Southwest Wisconsin

You write well and your hub is well-designed, too! Enjoyed the content and learned something, too, so it is very good in every way.

Just one suggestion: I'm going to assume that you did not design and produce the advertising artwork on your hub. If you did, my compliments on your artistic talent. If you did not, you really should cite your image sources. It will add to your credibility and help prevent any complaints from source artists, photographers and/or their agents.

If you want a couple of tips for providing quick and easy 'source references' under your hub images, just send me an e-mail and I'll pass them along to you (or anyone else who is interested, for that matter)!

Terry.Hirneisen profile image

Terry.Hirneisen 5 years ago from Shenandoah Valley

So this was the beginning of manipulating masses to do things against their own self interest. It worked on me for about 40 years. Very well researched HUB and informative. The GOP has learned the tactic well. LSMFT


katrinasui profile image

katrinasui 5 years ago

A very well researched article. Well done:)

secularist10 profile image

secularist10 5 years ago from New York City

Very interesting, Jane. When I was in college, I like to say that my Economics department knew that consumers were rational; my Marketing department knew that they weren't.

It's fascinating to see how so much of the modern culture has been influenced or manufactured by marketing and PR. Another example is makeup; in the 19th century, makeup was only used by prostitutes, but today it is essential to almost every woman.

Smoking is still fashionable in many circles. I still see plenty of in-shape, good-looking or well-dressed people smoking all the time.

Regarding that top picture, I didn't realize inhalation could cause that kind of an... ahem... "effect" in a woman.

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dichter1993 5 years ago

You're a very well informed writer. A pleasure to read!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

A.A Zavala...sometimes I think sex drives everything! Thanks for reading.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

jeffduff, thanks very much for your comment. I'm sure my credibility could always do with improvement so I might take you up on those tips! It is very shoddy not to credit the artist, but the problem here is they are all advertisements and I don't who the artist is. They are all over the net, so I'm not sure who they belong to.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Terry, they worked on a lot of people! Thanks very much for the rating.

Thank you too, Katrinasul.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Secs, lol..yes it is a very suggestive picture isn't it?

I guess smoking is still fashionable in certain quarters, not in the mainstream though. It seems to mainly the young and impressionable. I know quite a few teenagers who smoke. Some kind of rebellion I guess. Or is it just self-destructive tendencies? "I'm too cool to worry about cancer".

Thanks for dropping in!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks very much dichter!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

marcoujor..what a great comment. Thanks.

Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Jane, interesting...My youngest sister bought into the argument pushed forward by the Lucky Strike poster. She wanted to slim down so she took to smoking. She quit after she got married and before she had children.

Me? I don't smoke but I can see the lure in the old movies. Betty Davis was virtually the poster woman for smoking. She could make lighting up look sexy.

The 'cigareets' (cigarettes) the trail hands smoked or the tobacco they chewed had a romantic feel. Be a tough guy, get the girl, light up.

Mind you, chewing tobacco makes your breath smell bad (or maybe that is the rotting gums from the chew) and your teeth fall out. Kind of like Betel nuts chewed by mostly women in Bali.

Well, we know the sorts of things tobacco in general gives you including holes in the lungs.

The Vamps in the 1920s helped to popularize smoking at least among European women.

It should be remembered that Freud paid for his cigar addiction when it ruined his health. Cigars led to the death of one ex-American President, Grant.

As for women and smoking I much prefer to be in the company of a woman who doesn't smoke. Since I don't smoke I think that is fair enough.

Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Interesting hub! I thought I would look cool if I smoked in high school, so I tried it a few times. Everytime I went to "flick" my ashes, I broke the cigarette in half. Oh well.

drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Well-written, well-researched and an absolute delight to read, Jane. Thank you for this history of women and cigarettes. Fascinating and voted up.

Janell Rhiannon profile image

Janell Rhiannon 5 years ago from CA, USA

wow. I am not surprised that smoking and women's liberation and progressivism went hand in hand. Quitting smoking still scares women because it will make them...fat...enjoyed this history lesson.

Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 5 years ago from USA or America

That was one seriously disturbing hub. And it's accuracy is right on target. The manipulation used on people is absurd. Thumbs up! :) Excellent said. :)

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, yes, just about all those old films stars smoked on was definitely the 'smart' thing to do back then.

Going back even further, I love that line in "The Importance of Being Earnest" when Lady Bracknell asks Algernon Moncrieff if he smokes. When he says "yes", she replies:

"Good! I do like a man to have an occupation."

I read that Freud believed smoking helped him work. Yes, he paid the price.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Truckstop Sally...that must have been one aggressive flick you had! lol. Thanks for the comment.

Thanks drbj!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Janell,yes, it all makes sense when you think about it. It was a very clever, if devious, campaign. Thanks for your comment.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Cagsil...thanks for reading and commenting! So many things about life are absurd eh?

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CompuManic 5 years ago

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

As a former smoker I find it amazing that smoking has become somewhat invisible.I find it odd anymore when I see someone smoking.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi dahoglund...I know what you mean. That's the power of social persuasion.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago

Who would say that Dr.Freud had anything to do with the tobacco industry and women smoking cigarettes? I haven't heard of Edward Bernays so thank you for pointing out the inventor of the term "public relations" - I'll check him out (he must have written books, too). Great hub, voted up!

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 4 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks vox - I really appreciate that nice comment

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